LAPIS LAZULI - A gem with history

Lapis Lazuli, commonly known as lapis. It was much prized and reverred by the people of the world's first civilizations in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, and the Indus Valley. Also, much prized by the ancient Greeks, Persian's and Romans.

In very ancient times it was known as Sapphire, a name now of course given to blue corundum(sapphire). The Royal Sumerian tombs at Ur, near the Euphrates river, which is now Southern Iraq, contained over 6,000 artifacts of Lapis carved as animals urns, bowls, vases, inlayed into board games and as beads and seals. In ancient Egypt it was a symbol of royalty an connecteed to the gods and deities. It was carved into scarabs and amulets. It was powdered and used as eye shadow by Cleopatra and other Egyptian women of high status. The finest quality was used in the death mask of Tutankhamun.

The source of this ancient lapis is the mines in what is now Badakshan in north East Afghanistan. These are the world's oldest known commercial gemstone mines.

Other major deposits are found in Russia, Siberia, near Lake Baikal and in the Andes mountains in Chile. Though there is no doubt that Afghan mines are the most important and produce the finest quality. On passing through this area in 1271 Marco Polo wrote "there is a mountain in this region, where the finest Azure (Lapis Lazuli) in the world is found.

In Renaissance times Lapis Lazuli was ground into a powder to produde the pigment ultramarine. It was much used by the old masters such as Leonardo De Vinci, Rubens and Michelangelo. Example of ultramarine is in the cloak of the Madonna.

PHOTO: Ultramarine was used in the Girl with the pearl earring

PHOTO: The cloak of the Madonna was also painted ultramarine in renaissance times

In the early 1800's synthetic ultra marine was first produced and natural ultramarine from lapis fell out of use. Though it is still used in the restoration work of the old masterpieces.

The present day situation in the Afghan Lapis mines has not changed too much.

They are in a forbidding, isolated area of the Hindu Kush mountain range.

The Lapis is still brought out by mules through the Hindu Kush mountains. The mines can only be accessed and worked in the summer months. The lapis deposits are in the Kokcha valley where the peaks rise to over 6000 metres.

British Army Lieutenant John Wood, surveying the area, on behalf of the East India Company later wrote "If you do not wish to die avoid the valley of Kokcha."

Peter Bancroft, who personally visited the mines, wrote in his classic book "Gems and crystal treasures" (published 1984) -"The route to the lapis mines in the Kokcha Valley, is long, tortuous and dangerous. The lapis is mined on the steep sides of a long narrow defile. Only 200 metres wide and backed by jagged peaks that rise above 6000 metres. Sparsely populated and covered in snow for much of the year. The barren region is inhabited by wild hogs and wolves. The summer sun is scorching but the temparatures drop to below freezing at night.

With the Soviet intervention into Afghanistan in 1979 the center for the Lapis trade changed from Kabul to Peshawar as Kabul was under soviet control. The mines were under the control the Mujahideen anti Soviet fighters. Dealers said that buying lapis was a way of supporting the Mujahideen freedom fighters cause. The lapis was brought down through the Dorah pass to Chitral then onto Peshawar in the North West of Pakistan, where it ends up in an Namak Mandi gem market. Peshawar has been the center of the lapis trade ever since, maybe even more so than Kabul.

PHOTO: A Route of the lapis trade from the mines in Hindu Kush through Chitral to Peshawar

Lapis Lazuli is a rock made of several minerals including lazurite, sodalite, hauyne, calcite and pyrite. The composition is variable. It is a sodium calcium aluminum silicate.

It is debatable what the best colour of lapis is. Some people prefer a deep pure sky blue of intense colour, though most people would say a royal blue which may have a slight violet tinge with little or no pyrite.

PHOTO: Tutankhamun's death mask - finest quality lapis and no pyrite

PHOTO: Lapis from the Queens grave at Ur (about 2500bc).

Try these two links

In metaphysical spiritualism stone represents the Brow Chakra also called the third eye which relate to attunement, intuition, psychic awareness, and cosmic wisdom. Some buddhists claim that it can be used to calm the mind and helps with meditation.

PHOTO: This is commercial quality, light colour with calcite.

PHOTO: A decent blue, 128 grams.

PHOTO: This carving is not too fine but good colour.

PHOTO: A vibrant blue

PHOTO: A nice piece, 414 grams.

PHOTO: Polished side of the piece above.


PHOTO: Lapis beads

PHOTO: Lapis beads

PHOTO: Lapis beads

PHOTO: A good piece, 72 grams

CONTACT : Dave Gibson. A collector in the UK. My email is

©All photos and text are all Copyright of David Gibson.

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